Directed by Tôya Satô
There are several mixed messages in Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler. For one thing the protagonist in the film is a loser slacker approaching thirty and the only solution to his problems is to gamble his life away, sure he wins, but ultimately he loses. See, for slackers like me, also considered somewhat of a loser, approaching thirty, I too tend to feel that the only way of getting out of my current bog of a life is to win the lottery. Although given that I haven’t purchased a ticket in months, probably not since that big ol’ Euromillions jackpot seemed so tantalizingly within my grasp, despite the ludicrous odds. My chances of living a jet set playboy lifestyle remain fairly slim.
Kaiji Ito is at rock bottom, struggling to find gainful unemployment, getting himself in unnecessary scrapes, his life is directionless. One day after kicking the wrong car in an act of petty vandalism he is approached by a debt collector named Rinko Endo. She informs Kaiji that financially he is fucked, and either he can spend the remainder of his adult life paying off loans or take a chance by getting on board a ship called ‘Espoir’ where he can take one big gamble, repay his debt, and live a better life. Thinking this is the easiest way to solve his financial problems Kaiji climbs on board.
The film really amps up tension during the gambling scenes that take place on the ‘Espoir’, as Kaiji, and assortment or similarly aged male losers are informed by a shady businessman named Tonegawa that they are playing for their freedom. A simple card game of rock, paper, scissors turns into a tense battleground, with the losers cutting each other’s throats (metaphorically speaking) to get the big prize. Kaiji is tricked by a player called Funai, yet is able to regain the upper hand when he teams up with a meek man known only as Mister. However by helping him Kaiji manages to lose the game, and is faced with the grim prospect of years of underground hard labour.
When the opportunity to play a second game called “Brave Man Road” comes along after months of sweat and toil, Kaiji once again decides that it is better to take a chance then to pointlessly endure the harsh daily grind. The game isn’t all that fun for the competitors as they must walk along a narrow steel girder that connects two high rise buildings. The game requires stamina, concentration, and nerve, one slip and it is curtains. To make matters worse the girder has been electrified, meaning that you can’t crawl across in a safer fashion.
Once he crosses the girder (and this scene takes an eternity, with tension ramped up to comical levels) Kaiji must battle Tonegawa in one final card game – ‘E Card’, which relies on psychologically out witting your opponent. It’s Emperor vs. Slave, Kaiji’s bid for freedom is reduced to one more game of chance over three agonizing rounds.
The films message underlines the difference between the rich and the poor in our difficult worldwide economic climate. The rich in the film, clad in designer suits watch the action through CCTV screens, laughing to themselves as each loser fails. A generation is being lost to debt, and this debt is leading to an assortment of wider personal problems, including gambling addiction.
Tonegawa regularly taunts Kaiji throughout the film, but he does make a salient point, that life is fundamentally unfair. There are several blunt scenes which underline the unfairness of lowly paid manual labour, particularly when after receiving a pittance of a paycheque after a month of underground toil Kaiji is seduced by his foreman into blowing his entire wage on chicken and beer. He realises even small comforts can’t compensate for his frustration.
Coming in at 130 minutes the length of the film allows for a greater exploration of the thought processes of each character. The ‘E Card’ game reveals the inner workings of Kaiji and Tonegawa, as both ponder their each move. Each game’s outcome is explained in detail, just in case you missed out anything during the tense action. This at times seems a little patronizing to the viewer, and is a perhaps overdone.
During the course of his journey Kaiji discovers that you must feel alive, in order to truly live and to do this you must take risks, and endure hardship. The lesson here my friends is that you must throw caution to the wind. Though it’s probably not best do this through reckless gambling. Gamble responsibly folks, and pick your battles sensibly.